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Ryan O’Byrne
Postgraduate Taught Programmes Officer
Tel: +44 (0)20 7679 1040

Volker Sommer
Programme Tutor
Tel: +44 (0)20 7679 8838

MSc Human Evolution and Behaviour

About the programme

Darwinian theory has radically altered our understanding of human life. Against this background, our masters course is designed to provide students with a solid practical and theoretical grounding in issues relevant to the evolution of humans and non-human primates. The compulsory programme involves a seminar-based core module covering a choice of two topics from three that are on offer (palaeoanthropology, primate socioecology, human behavioural ecology), as well as attendance at the research seminar in biological anthropology and at the graduate research methods seminar. Students also choose three options from a variety of topics such as Anthropological and Archaeological Genetics, Human Skeletal and Dental Biology, The Archaeology of Pre-Modern Humans, Evolutionary Archaeology, Evolution of Cognition, Primate Evolution, Documentary Filmmaking. Performance is largely assessed by examination, essays and an MSc thesis.

This one-year masters programme offers a unique combination of courses related to primate and human evolution, ecology, behaviour and genetics.

The programme for the MSc in Human Evolution and Behaviour consists of:

Compulsory core components (25% of overall marks for the degree)

- Two of the following:

- Post graduate methods/Statistics 1 (term 1)

- Dissertation project presentation

3 optional courses (25%; each option thus represents 8.3%)

Involvement in the Department's research environment

  • Weekly departmental seminars (2-hour)
  • Occasional attendance at non-departmental seminars

MSc Dissertation (50%)

Core Components

Human Behavioural Ecology – ANTHGH14

  • Weekly 2-hour post graduate seminar
  • Recommended attendance of 2-hour undergraduate lecture per week (ANTH7018, Human Behavioural Ecology)

This component is about the evolution of behaviour in humans. It examines how much of the variation in behaviour can be understood in terms of maximising reproductive success in different ecological and social circumstances. There is increasing recognition that Darwinian approaches can contribute to our understanding of human demography, health, psychology and culture, in hunter-gatherer, traditional and modern agricultural and post-industrial societies. The course will cover those aspects of our behaviour and life history that have parallels in numerous species, and also those that may be uniquely human (such as menopause and the demographic transition), including how cultural evolution has influenced our behaviour. The subjects covered in the weekly seminars will relate to those covered in the optional undergraduate lectures, but the first two thirds of the lecture course is about theory and its application to animals, with the last third being exclusively about humans, whereas the seminar will concentrate on humans exclusively throughout. Areas covered: theoretical approaches to the study of behavioural and evolutionary ecology (such as kin selection, the comparative method and optimality), social evolution (altruism, social living, life history theory, reproductive strategies).

Primate Socioecology – ANTHGH15

  • Weekly 2-hour post graduate seminars
  • Recommended attendance of 2-hour undergraduate lectures per week (ANTH7009, Primate Behaviour and Ecology)

The behaviour and ecology of living primates will be studied, as well as the general theoretical background to animal behaviour developed by evolutionary ecology. The focus is on current Darwinian paradigms about the evolution of the societies of primates. About 200 species including humans belong to this mammalian order. Like all animals, they are faced with the problems of how to survive, breed and rear offspring. Some animals do better in this regard than others - they have a higher reproductive success and their genetic information will be more frequently represented in future generations. The social behaviour of primates is particularly complex and can be viewed as attempts to maximise genetic fitness. The course asks how primates organise their social and reproductive strategies to adapt to specific environmental conditions. Topics covered will include social, mating, and breeding systems; sexual selection; parenting behaviour; ecological competition; intra-specific aggression; social intelligence (particularly deception and "language") and technological intelligence (tool use); animal rights. Includes a visit to London Zoo.

Palaeoanthropology – ANTHGH16

  • Weekly 2-hour post graduate seminars
  • Recommended attendance of 2-hour undergraduate lecture per week (ANTH2003, Palaeoanthropology)

This course introduces the fossil evidence for human evolution and its interpretation. It includes an introduction to techniques of species recognition and phylogenetic reconstruction as well as to the molecular evidence of the human line in the Miocene (23 - 5.5 mya). The second half of the course looks at the evolution and adaptation of the genus Homo, its spread out of Africa and the controversies surrounding subsequent evolution of modern humans. The laboratory sessions aim to familiarise you with (1) the relevant comparative anatomy, (2) the casts of the relevant fossils, and (3) the methodology and techniques necessary to interpreter the fossil material.

Post-graduate methods/Statistics 1 - ANTHGH03

This course introduces statistics and the R language from their very basics. The course assumes no background knowledge of either statistics or statistical software. Topics covered in Term 1 ANTHGH03 include an introduction to statistics in R, distributions, hypothesis testing (t-tests, proportion tests, ANOVA), correlation, linear regression, multivariate statistics (multiple regression, PCA, discriminant analysis) and logistic regression.

Dissertation Project Presentation (end of term 2)

All students present a 15-min preliminary dissertation proposal in front of peers and members of staff, followed by a discussion.

Optional Courses

Note: Not all options might be on offer during each session. A minimum number of five students are required for any one option to be run. In reality, this is almost always achieved, as students often originate from various programmes. There might be slight changes to lecturers and course requirements from year to year.


  • Advanced Human Evolution – ANTHGH02
  • Statistics 2 - ANTHGH04
  • Anthropological and Archaeological Genetics – ANTHGH07
  • Primate Evolution – ANTHGH17
  • Practical Ethnographic and Documentary Filmmaking – ANTHGS17/20/25


  • Archaeology of Hunter-Gatherers from the Emergence of Modern Humans – ARCLG128
  • Variation and Evolution of the Human Skull – ARCHLG144
  • Dental Anthropology – ARCHLG145
  • Evolution of the Human Brain and Behaviour – ARCLG183
  • Archaeology of Early Human Origins – ARCLG271

Project Dissertation (50% of marks)

The dissertation is based on independent research and thought. This may be achieved at an empirical level (by presenting source or case materials) or at a theoretical level (by exploring and synthesising previously published sources), or in a mixed manner. A good dissertation demonstrates awareness of similar research, situates itself critically in relation to what has come before and will also point to other areas of research.

The thesis supervisor will be chosen on the basis of topic and/or theoretical expertise, and is typically an instructor of a core course or option course. Other academics might act as supervisors during field or lab work phases, given that students will often collect dissertation data in research groups located outside UCL.

Some recent titles of MSc dissertations include:

  • The Neanderthal and Homo erectus pelvis in human evolution
  • A quantitative analysis of gibbon behavioural ecology
  • The evolution of the mammalian sex chromosome heteromorphism
  • An evolutionary analysis of tool using behaviour: a computer simulation of the behaviours of complex life
  • Primate lifespan, mortality risk and the disposable soma theory of senescence

Research seminars and activities

Biological Anthropology Seminars

Attendance is compulsory for all post-graduate students. Tea, coffee and snacks are provided half an hour before the seminar starts. Afterwards, speaker, members of staff and many post-graduates go out for drinks and often also for dinner. This is an opportunity to meet staff and students informally.

Examples from previous lists of speakers:

  • Daryl Shanley (University of Manchester): Evolution of menopause.
  • Mariko Hiraiwa-Hasegawa (Senshu University & University of Tokyo): Patterns of homicide in Japan from an evolutionary perspective.
  • Ilona Blue (South Bank University): Urban health in developing countries.
  • Robin Allaby (University of Manchester and UMIST): The domestication of wheat in the Near East: molecular evidence.
  • Nyovani Madise (University of Southampton): Patterns of child mortality in Malawi.
  • Mark Collard (Department of Anthropology, UCL): Cladistics and the reconstruction of early hominid phylogenies.
  • Randy Sussman (SUNY Stony Brook): Who made the early Oldowan tools? Fossil evidence for tool behaviour in the Plio-Pleistocene hominids.
  • Chris McManus (St Mary's Hospital, London): Evolutionary aspects of brain laterality: Why most people are right-handed.
  • Andrea Migliano (UCL Department of Anthropology): Convergent Evolution of African, Asian and Melanesian pygmies
  • Jeroen Smaers (UCL Department of Anthropology): Brains, behaviour, and how to link them across millions of years: the evolution of functionally specialized neural circuits in primates
  • Andrew King (Structure and Motion Laboratory, Royal Veterinary College, University of London): Living on the edge: How social relationships define baboon success in the Namib Desert
  • Lisa Debruine (University of Aberdeen School of Psychology): Evoked culture and mate preferences
  • Dave Begun (University of California at Davis Department of Evolution and Ecology): Hominine origins in Europe: Encephalization and orthogrady
  • Asifa Majid (Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics): Celebrity and the Environment: Fame, Wealth and Power in Conservation
  • Chris Sandbrook (Cambridge University Department of Geography): Power, politics and public-private partnerships: investigating a new approach to nature-based tourism in Uganda
  • Rebecca Drury (Fauna & Flora International): Hungry for success: the social drivers of urban demand for wild animals in Vietnam
  • Nichola Raihani (Zoological Society of London): Crime and punishment: insights from a non-human model system

Non-departmental seminar series

UCL and nearby academic institutions organise numerous seminar series which often host word-class speakers. Attendance is optional for graduate students, but it is expected and highly recommended that students use the opportunity to familiarise themselves with the latest developments in Evolutionary Biology and Evolutionary Anthropology. You can also, of course, attend one of the many seminar series organised by other sections of the department, given that we highly value multi-disciplinary approaches.

Current Course Tutors:

Volker Sommer (Professor, Evolutionary Anthropology)
Evolution of social and sexual behaviour in primates; field studies on monkeys and apes in India, Thailand, Nigeria

Christophe Soligo (Senior Lecturer, Biological Anthropology)
Primate radiations, palaeoenvironment, phylogenetics

Anna Barros (Teaching Fellow, Palaeoanthropology)
Geometric morphometrics and applications to hominoid fossil evidence; comparing patterns of intra- and interspecific variation

Andrea Migliano (Lecturer, Human Behavioural Ecology)
Human morphological, physiological, developmental and genetic variation

Ruth Mace (Professor, Evolutionary Anthropology)
Human behavioural ecology, life history and the evolution of human diversity, with regional expertise in Africa

Lucio Vinicius (Lecturer, Biological Anthropology)
Brain evolution and life history in humans


First destinations of recent graduates include:

  • Stephen Maynard and Associates: Researcher
  • Support Services Partnership: Administrator
  • Office for National Statistics: Research Officer
  • Imperial College: PhD: Social Determinants of Health
  • Environment Agency: Assistant Scientist
  • Polish Academy of Science: Researcher
  • House of Commons: Senior Office Clerk
  • Research Now PLC: Project Executive
  • Future Science Group: Assistant Commissioning Editor
  • National Trust: Deputy Warden

Find out more about London graduates' careers by visiting the Careers Group (University of London) website:

Transferable Skills

Research skills

Students learn how to complete a quantitative, scientific research project, from inception to data analysis and writing up. Many of our students go on to do PhDs.

Personal effectiveness

Students learn how to conduct and complete a challenging, cross-disciplinary scientific masters degree.

Communication skills

Students make a presentation of project ideas to a group.
Students learn to write up scientific results.

Teamworking and networking

Students are often made aware of, and often make contact with, evolutionary anthropologists throughout the world during this MSc. This provides an ideal starting point for trying to develop future careers in evolutionary anthropology.

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